Born in New York City, Machlis received his degree in Marketing at American University in Washington, D.C. Following a graduate school intersession, during which he was hired onto the crew of a small film shooting in Florida, Machlis returned to Washington to work for a small film production company. His first job was as a news cameraman at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Machlis entered the motion picture industry later that year, and was a graduate of the very first class of the Directors Guild Training Program. He later worked his way up through the ranks from second assistant director to first assistant director, production manager and associate producer.